Shaky `O' line tries to solve Steelers' 3-4


Ravens' struggling unit faces NFL's top defense

Pro Football

November 03, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not the ideal opponent for an offensive line in search of equilibrium.

The Ravens have allowed 12 sacks the past two weeks. Some were the result of prudent decisions by veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham, others the by-product of a line dealing with injuries and inexperience. That group's degree of difficulty will increase tomorrow at Heinz Field, where Jonathan Ogden and company try to solve an unfamiliar 3-4 scheme that has supplanted Baltimore's as the toughest defense to crack in the NFL.

The Steelers allow 266.5 yards and 10.8 points per game, both league lows. Their 24 sacks are another NFL standard. Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh went to Tampa Bay and recorded 10 sacks.

The Ravens surrendered seven sacks in Cleveland, and five to Jacksonville on Sunday.

Besides Ogden's play, the only given on the line is that free agent Leon Searcy is done for the year. There have been platoons on the right side, and Kipp Vickers has plugged holes down the line.

The manner in which a group looking for its bearings copes with the havoc caused by the Steelers and their odd front will be a key in this AFC Central game.

"The Steelers get after people, and they really mix it up," Vickers said. "They bring linebackers [on the pass rush], drop linemen [into passing lanes], they do it all. As far as the offensive line, and the offense in general, we've got to know our assignment, know where we're supposed to be, and be there. That would fit any game, not just the Steelers."

The learning curve for Vickers is steep. He began the season at right guard, and started two games at left guard because of an injury to Edwin Mulitalo. Against the Jaguars, Vickers started at right tackle, replaced Mulitalo when he was shaken up, and got some snaps at right guard when Bennie Anderson was struggling. Against the Steelers, he is again prepared for everything.

"They're different," Vickers said of the Steelers' 3-4. "At guard, you're going to spend a lot of time uncovered than against a normal 4-3. That doesn't mean you're going to stay uncovered, because they move so much. You may have a linebacker standing over you, but you don't have a guy lined up dead on you. That would be the biggest difference between playing guard and tackle against the Steelers."

Linebackers Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and Kendrell Bell, a rookie out of Georgia, have combined for 12 sacks, and ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen, another seven.

Running man

Jermaine Lewis is still searching for his first touchdown of the season, but the biggest curiosity involving the return specialist is that he has more rushes than catches.

With Patrick Johnson (shoulder) inactive for the fourth straight week, Lewis continues to practice with the offense behind wide receiver Qadry Ismail, but he's also available for a quick pitch out of the backfield.

Lewis' first carry came in the season opener against the Bears, a 2-yard loss in which he was fortunate to collect a pitch from Elvis Grbac.

That call was more productive Sunday, when Lewis threw a curve at a Jaguars defense hunkered down to stop Jason Brookins. It took several Jaguars to take down Lewis at the end of a 14-yard run that set up the Ravens' first touchdown.

"After what happened in the opener, I just told myself to hold on to the ball," said Lewis, who didn't appear cautious on the carry. "I used to play tailback; I'm used to getting pitches. I was hungry. I wanted to score. "

A tailback at Eleanor Roosevelt High, Lewis became a record-setting receiver at Maryland. When the run and shoot misfired in his senior season with the Terps, he played some tailback in the I-formation.

Lewis is second in the NFL in punt returns, with an average of 13.7 yards, and admits that he is getting antsy to break one for a touchdown.

"It's getting frustrating," Lewis said. "If I get one, others will come. Getting the first one is the hardest. We're getting big returns, we're just not finishing them. It will take a while for us [punt-return team] to gel. We've got some rookies out there who need to get used to the NFL game."

Cunningham likely starter

Although coach Brian Billick has not named a starting quarterback for tomorrow, the Ravens still appear to be leaning toward Cunningham.

Billick did indicate that Grbac has progressed enough with his rib injury to the point where he would be listed as the No. 2 quarterback tomorrow if he could not start. Last Sunday, third-string quarterback Chris Redman served as the backup.

"Elvis is feeling much better," Billick said. "It's the best he's felt."

Ravens running back Terry Allen did not practice for the second straight day, meaning Brookins will likely make his second NFL start.

"I don't know if [Allen's] prognosis for this weekend is as good [as Grbac's]," Billick said.

Sun staff writer Jamison Hensley contributed to this article.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers

Site: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Steelers by 2

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